Over the 53 years that the MLB draft has been Major League Baseball’s means of acquiring domestic amateur talent, 259 outfielders have been selected in the 15th round. Of that number, only 18 have even debuted in the major leagues, and only 10 managed a positive WAR. If you were to narrow the criteria to those who appeared in at least 200 games, it lowers the total to seven, a mere 2.7 percent.
In other words, the chances of an outfielder taken this late having an even modestly successful major league career fall somewhere between slim and none.
In that light, it's no surprise very few people took note when the Detroit Tigers took Mike Gerber in the 15th round of the 2014 draft. A “tweener” in the outfield with a solid, if unspectacular bat isn't a player one would expect to find on a top prospects list, but here he is. Making the best use of his skills is what got him to the high minors, and what will likely help him beats the odds and carve out a major league career.
Detroit drafted Gerber from Creighton University as a senior signability pick, more or less for organizational filler. Gerber immediately rewarded their choice in 2015, mopping up in the Single-A Midwest League. He hit .292/.355/.468 (135 wRC+) with 13 home runs and 54 extra-base hits in 135 games, a promising omen for his future.
While college draftees are generally expected to perform well in the low minors before meeting some resistance, Gerber never slowed down. The next two seasons have seen him dutifully climb the organizational ladder, reaching Triple-A for a four-game cameo in 2017. He put together offensive performances upwards of 30 percent above league average in his two longest stints, including an .840 OPS in 92 games at Double-A Erie last season.
Gerber's best attribute is his solid defense. He doesn't make the stunning plays that seem to come naturally to defenders as gifted as Kevin Kiermaier or Byron Buxton, but he is capable in all three outfield positions. Seeing most of his professional time as a right fielder, he rarely makes errors there, and his arm is strong and accurate enough to work in the corners. There is little agreement on how good Gerber will be in the field when all is said and done, though. FanGraphs seems to like his work in the field, placing above-average grades on his glove and arm. MLB Pipeline’s latest rankings are more pessimistic, claiming his fielding is average and his arm a tick below. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels splits the difference, praising Gerber's polish and instincts but refraining from calling him above-average.
Thanks to his advanced approach at the plate, Gerber has taken his fair share of walks as a pro. Topping 10 percent in smaller sample sizes, he continued to get on base at Double-A Erie, drawing walks in 9.9 percent of plate apperances. It is a critical asset that will serve Gerber well as he reaches the highest levels of pro ball.
When he does swing the bat, Gerber makes the best use of his contact. Hitting ground and fly balls at approximately the same rate, he strokes line drives at a rate that approaches 25 percent. Despite not hitting too many flies, Gerber still hits for some power, especially to the pull field. His excellent quality of contact plays a key role in allowing him to extract as much value as possible from an otherwise limited profile.
It won't take much more polish for him to slot in nicely on a major league bench. Even if Gerber never starts games with regularity or lures an eight-figure contract, it is easy to picture him as a capable backup who can perform at an adequate level for extended periods if necessary.
Despite being palpably close to a job in the majors, nothing particular about Gerber has impressed onlookers. He spends most of his innings in right field but doesn't have much more than average strength behind his throws. Capable of playing in center, he is not speedy and likely would become a liability in extended duty. Projected to have average contact ability at best, he doesn't supplement it with more than average power.
Some doubted that he would be able to continue getting free passes at an above-average rate in the high minors. Pointing to a mark just above eight percent in most long stretches and an approach that featured more discipline than batting eye — i.e. he still goes fishing for pitches out of the zone — some predicted a drop-off in offensive production. Gerber went a long way towards quieting those whispers in 2017, but it will take a successful encore in 2018 to truly lay to rest those concerns. There is little margin for error if Gerber is to stay a major leaguer for long. Such outcomes aren't without precedent (see: Dirks, Andy) but everything has to break right for Gerber to be a long-term asset, especially on a contending team.
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
There is little doubt that Leonys Martín and Victor Reyes will end up starting the season with the Tigers, leaving Gerber on the outside looking in. Giving him a chance to play everyday on a crowded Mud Hens roster is the better move for now, and he still may not need to wait much longer than midseason to get the call to the bigs. Unless JaCoby Jones is absolutely scorching balls or Christin Stewart proves that his hit tool is advanced enough to tap into his massive power, Gerber will be called upon first to supplant a floundering major leaguer.
h/t FanGraphs for the video